Lilies In Transition: The state of trans representation in yuri

By: Alexis Sara September 6, 20230 Comments
Double House cover with two women wearing suits

Content Warning: Discussion of transphobia, transmisogyny

Spoilers for I Wanna Be Your Girl

Yuri is a growing genre, increasingly depicting more and more varied stories about sapphic love. As yuri continues to get queerer, the existence of trans people in these stories would be one way to provide validation for trans readers in their gender and sexuality while also helping cis people understand and internalize our long standing place in the sapphic community. Yuri works featuring trans characters do exist, though their history is complex and they remain relatively few.

A Slice of Reality 

Trans people are rooted in the sapphic community and have been a core part of it for as long as it could be called a community. Lesbians, by their very sexuality, defy the gender binary which was so strictly defined by heterosexuality, and in many cases they lose access to their conditional womanhood. This is furthered by the very long history of people engaged in the sapphic community who actively defied gender norms by presenting masculine, be that as a Butch, a Stud, lacking a label or some other label. Following from this, there is plenty of evidence of gender-defying companionship between lesbians and trans people in historical documentation, such as the works of Mariette Pathy Allen, who has chronicled transgender people for over 40 years as a photographer and released several books of her work. This is also present in fiction: for example, Alison Bechdel’s classic comic series Dykes To Watch Out For (1983) features a strip talking about the need for cis lesbians to have solidarity with trans women.

Dykes to Watch Out For in which a cis butch expresses discomfort at sharing a bathroom with a trans woman, only to be mistaken for a man herself and then defended by that femme trans woman
Dykes to Watch Out For

Trans women lesbians, non-binary lesbians, and trans men have all had their places in the wider sapphic community. The vast, vast majority of trans people do not identify as straight, which repeatedly shows in studies on transgender sexuality done in any place where sexuality is not a primary means of getting gender affirming care. So it is very important that the queer trans people who make up a decent percent of these communities be represented in art that depicts them. Reactionaries who co-opt our communities will claim we are a threat to other lesbians and sapphic people, but trans people are simply a staple of these spaces from the start. It’s important that, in the art created about sapphic people, there are examples of trans people existing and being happy in sapphic relationships. 

While the representation of sapphic trans women is gradually increasing in some English-language media, such as streaming series like Sense8 or teen novels like The Summer Love Strategy, trans people do not exist in most yuri works. While frustrating, this does make sense given the trajectory of the genre overall: it is only recently that yuri in general is exploring actual queer sexualities using overt, contemporary labels. Most yuri exist outside of queer politics—as “lesbian content without lesbian identity”—and are mostly focused on the affection between a particular couple of women (or several women) who are paired up throughout the story. Due to this, it’s rare to see them existing in part of a wider queer community, or to be engaged in what is happening in the world with queer women. 

This is changing, though, and we are seeing series like Yuri If My Job! (2016), Bloom Into You (2015), and How Do We Relationship? (2018) talk about being a lesbian and the realities of being queer. Modern classic Sex Ed 120% (2020) goes even further and contains frank discussions of queer sexuality and gender identity, though that series still doesn’t feature any trans characters despite talking briefly about trans issues. It still stands out, however, because so few yuri manga even take the time to discuss the existence of trans people in a supportive way—or at all. 

In part, this lack of trans presence in yuri likely happens because so much yuri does still take place at all girls high schools. A few women’s colleges have opened admission to trans women, but high schools remain largely conservative. Trans people’s legal options in Japan are also still fairly bad, and trans women in particular are vulnerable to transphobic propaganda. Obviously, stories focused on teens means trans characters who probably wouldn’t have legal recognition. This isn’t a unique issue to Japan; rises in hate campaigns and violence mean it’s not exactly easy to be trans in general right now, and even harder to be a trans youth—which means it’s even more important to represent them positively and with nuance in the media.

Ranma describes her memories of being a boy as like another person, where she woke up and realized she was a girl
“Am I… Pretty? Ranma’s Declaration of Womanhood”

Magically Transgender 

Yuri is growing beyond the school setting, and over the past few years has evolved and expanded into co-ed schools, offices, fantasy lands, and more. The primary place we see transforming one’s gender explored in yuri is in stories that contain some sort of magical gender transformation. These range in terms of their setting from fantasy to modern and they vary on how intentionally trans they are. 

Ranma ½ (1987) deserves a brief mention for its long standing place with many trans people as a first peek into playing with gender. Many a trans girl wished they could fall into a spring and end up turning into a girl. The series is not yuri—in fact it’s pretty aggressively heteronormative, and there are jokes about how characters like transfeminine lesbian Tsubasa supposedly need to be “fixed.” Still, there were also romantic moments between a femme-presenting Ramna and Akane and some amount of gender talk, and Ranma often seemed to find freedom in being able to present as a girl. 

Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl (2004) is the classic gender-changing yuri, in which a “guy” gets magically turned into a girl and ends up in a sapphic love triangle with the girl “he” has long been in love with and an old childhood friend. This story actually leans into a character grappling with gender identity and her choice to live life as a woman attracted to other women. It is a trans fantasy in a lot of ways: Hazumu magically transitions into a cis woman’s body, is basically accepted by most people as a woman and gets to live life as a woman who loves women. While it doesn’t work as a one-to-one for trans struggle, it can still be looked at as a really solid early example of trans yuri.

three girls falling, two as if about to kiss and the other facing away and shouting as if jealous

Much less discussed in these circles is Seinaru Ken wo Nuitara Onna no Ko ni Natte Shimatta Yuusha no Manga (roughly, “A Manga About a Hero Who Pulled Out the Holy Sword and Became a Girl”) (2019). This explicitly stars a trans character who, as the title says, received her deepest desire after pulling a holy sword from its resting place. Hero, the main character, does call it a fetish, but many trans women do also find that to be the position they are in early in their connection to their own gender. It features another trans woman who similarly asks to have her gender changed and becomes a second girlfriend for Hero. It is a gag series focused on light yuri goofs and vibing with the TSF genre. The series sadly never had any kind of ending, stopping abruptly with Hero becoming a Fallen Magical Girl who’s biggest “evil” desires were to just fully embrace girly things with no sense of embarrassment. It’s a cute ending, but doesn’t feel like a proper send off. 

More recently, there are also a few cases of transgender people and magical gender change in I’m In Love With The Villainess (2018), a story that touches a lot on queer identity and deeper politics in a way that makes it stand out among the traditions of yuri. First there is a side character who was magically cursed as a child to be seen as a boy and chooses later to live as a woman. It’s a weird narrative, but a lot of people find it touching. There is a second trans character who shows up even later and is treated fondly, who transitions magically rather than medically. Because they’re introduced five volumes into the manga, it’s unlikely that these characters will feature in the upcoming anime adaptation, unfortunately robbing us of some onscreen trans representation.

These narratives can be transgender fantasies where someone can fully become themselves without all the annoying steps and struggles along the way. It can also be a nice way to focus on particular issues in transitioning while skipping others, or to talk about gendered bodies. It can also, on the other hand, be used as a way to “no homo” things or as simply a bit of fetish content. These series might also inadvertently push stereotypes about “passing” by only validating trans women as women if they fully transform into a cis woman’s body. Nonetheless, there are plenty of people who are taking these magical transformation tropes and using them for touching trans narratives like Is It Strange To Feel Dysphoric After Coming Back From An Isekai?! and plenty of webnovels from people who clearly grew up with these stories close to their hearts. 

Ayumi and Aika embracing happily
“Ayumi and Aika”

Grounded Transgender Stories 

Trans people who haven’t magically transitioned do exist inside of yuri. While magical transitions can offer a fantasy, it is also good to see stories about trans characters more grounded in real life. Maybe my favorite piece of trans rep in yuri is from an anthology called Mermaid Line (2008) and the story called “Ayumi and Aika.” It’s short, but the trans woman is the object of a cis women’s desire in this story, which is fairly rare. A trans girl, Aika, breaks up with her cis girlfriend, Ayumi, after coming out as trans, thinking that was best for her. When coming to pick up her stuff months later from Ayumi’s apartment, Aika admits she is a lesbian and Ayumi and Aika get together. 

We open with Ayumi’s perspective for Chapter 1 and shift to Aika for Chapter 2. The manga does a good job of splitting these perspectives to show the love they both feel. It also takes time to talk about being trans from the trans perspective: she wants to start hormones, she isn’t sure what kind of surgery she wants and she knows some people don’t want any at all, she thinks about the politics of getting her information changed and how it would stop her from marrying Ayumi one day despite her love for her. It is an amazingly cute piece that handles the drama of misunderstandings and everything really well. It’s tender and sweet and the only real issue is I wish there was more. 

Not all portrayals of trans women that bill themselves as being yuri are positive, though. Among the stories that have hurt me the worst in my life is I Wanna Be Your Girl (2018). This story is not really a yuri but for the longest time many people believed it would be, because the premise focuses on a girl, Hime, who has a crush on her childhood friend Akira; she continues to deal with those feelings when Akira comes out as a trans girl, and so it warrants discussion here. 

cover of I Wanna Be Your Girl, with Hime holding up a boy's uniform and Akira holding up a girl's uniform

While it does an amazing job of depicting a trans girl’s body realistically and has fleeting moments where it seems it may affirm transgender love, ultimately Akira is straight and ends up alone, while the boy she had a crush on goes on to marry Hime. Akira is left loveless, alone, and expected to smile and support the cis people around her. Even if the story is meant to humanize trans people and encourage allyship, it reemphasizes a long history of stories where queer and trans characters are only allowed to exist if they’re the sexless, sassy sidekick with no wants of their own. In some ways it hurts more, creating an impression that one should be kind to “those people” without conceiving that a trans person could be a reader too. 

In stark contrast, Double House (1998) takes this realism and focuses in on adults in a way that feels great. This classic yuri focuses on a cis woman who is finally getting to explore herself after moving into the big city. She crosses paths with a  cynical trans woman who lives in the same apartment complex and they end up living a domestic life together over time as they learn about each other and change. It’s a short series without a proper ending, and it ends with the focus off the main two and more on another trans woman who struggles with her desire to be a mom. It uses realism to tell slightly unrealistic stories more convincingly. The yuri isn’t fully blooming, but it is sweet and nice.  

To the Future 

As we head into the future of trans representation in yuri, I feel positive that things may be a mixed bag in terms of representation. Given the trajectory so far, I feel that we’ll see more pieces slowly introduce trans characters, hopefully as main parts of a love story or very strong secondary characters in the narrative who are also allowed to be queer. I hold out hope that we can find plenty more stories where trans sapphics can thrive with other women and get to live a happily ever after like their cis counterparts. 

Every day more and more indie work shows up with utter passion and love for trans sapphics. There is a lot out there to go out and find, from Webtoon to Tapas to things lurking in the depths of Pixiv, to drafts of stories people are fighting to get published by some big magazine. Hopefully in a few years time an article like this would have to skip over a ton of notable works to really talk about the current state of trans yuri. For now, we have a complicated history and a few modern stories taking exciting strides forward to enjoy. 

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